Signed on ice; not carved in stone

Israel Today, March 2013, www.IsraelToday.Co.Il, March 11, 2013

The Middle East is burning. The façade of the Arab Spring has long since fallen away, and it has become apparent that this is simply another round of the type of turmoil that has long defined the region.

“We have not experienced an Arab Spring or a March to Democracy or a Facebook Revolution,” former Israeli Ambassador Yoram Ettinger told Israel Today. “What we have experienced is typical, endemic intra-Arab violence in our region.”

Alan Baker, a former Israeli diplomat who worked on the peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians, concurred: “I laugh when I hear ‘Arab Spring’ because I think it’s wishful thinking on the part of the Europeans. There’s no such thing as an Arab Spring. It’s a tragic Arab Winter.”

Ettinger says Western leaders need to learn the lessons from current events: “The riots in Tunisia and in Egypt, the ongoing tribal war in Libya, and the civil war in Syria all shed light on the reality of the Middle East, which for the past 1,400 years has consisted of unpredictability, violent intolerance, instability, unreliability and fragmentation.”

So the regime changes across the region don’t signal a transformation to democracy. “Any new arrangement in the Arab countries will be subjected to the above tenets of the Middle East,” Ettinger continued. “In other words, any arrangement by definition would be provisional. Agreements in the Middle East are signed in ice, not carved in stone.”

Even the moderate and relatively stable Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan will not be immune. “Jordan has already been impacted by the surge of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, will be affected by the civil war in Syria and has felt the effects of the fragmentation of Iraq, which is becoming an Iranian outpost,” Ettinger said. “The Hashemite Kingdom will be swept away. The only question is when, not whether.”

In the midst of all of this, Israel has emerged as an island of stability. Yet Israel is still singled out as the source of the region’s troubles and the one that must make concessions to restore calm.

“How can President Obama and the Europeans come along and say to the Israelis, ‘Oh, ignore what’s happening all around you. You have to show more willingness to compromise with the Palestinians!’” asked a bewildered Baker. “Why? Why do we have to do this? If the whole area is crumbling, why do we have to place ourselves in a riskier situation?”

Ettinger argued that it’s time for the international community to stop zeroing-in on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. “Those gullible observers or policy makers who refer to the Arab-Israeli conflict as the Middle East conflict should reassess because it has never been the main conflict,” he noted. “Over the past two years, none of the seismic events from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf have had any relevance to the Palestinian issue.”

Baker says Israel cannot safely sign a peace agreement in this atmosphere without substantial Western guarantees, but it’s still an enormous risk. “If after 34 years the peace treaty that has been the most stable element of Arab-Israeli peace in the Middle East is being destabilized by the Egyptian leadership, what hope would anybody have of achieving genuine, lasting agreements with the Syrians or the Lebanese or the Palestinians?” he wondered.

Ettinger agrees: “If the Arabs have so easily and violently violated domestic and regional agreements among themselves, can anybody reasonably expect them to handle agreements with the Jewish state in a more peaceful manner?”

Therefore, the safest bet for Israel is to hold on to vital territorial assets. “Logically speaking, the more unpredictable, the higher the security threshold,” stated Ettinger. “And a higher security threshold underlies the importance of Israel maintaining control of the strategically important mountains of Judea and Samaria.”